Tackling the Myths Behind Pregnancy Food Restrictions

Many delusions behind pregnancy nutrition-related dos and don'ts are based on superstitions and old wives' tales.

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Pregnancy was by far the absolute best time of my life but also among the scariest times, as I often found myself bombarded with a boatload of conflicting information and advice on what I should and should not eat and drink.

In fact, during my second trimester I learned how failing to drink enough water could result in dirty amniotic fluid and that eating peanut butter would actually cause my child to have nut allergies.

Does this sound as ridiculous to you as it did to me?

Still, while many delusions behind pregnancy nutrition-related dos and don’ts are based on such superstitions and old wives’ tales, some are more concrete, having a bit of truth surrounding them. This holds especially true in the case of long-held beliefs and perspectives about whether or not consumption of things like coffee and alcohol, or sushi and raw fish should be restricted during pregnancy. Nonetheless, as a scientist, I’ve remained a skeptic.

Given that these foods and beverages were regular staples in my prenatal diet, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share my personal insights along with the real truths and common misconceptions that surround them.

When it comes to healthy eating and good nutrition in general, I believe in moderation, not elimination.

As an American, I’ve always found it interesting how we possess all the “rules” and guidelines pertaining to good nutrition and living well, yet we’re still among the heaviest, sickest, and most stressed people worldwide. On the flip side, the many Europeans who smoke in moderation, drink in moderation, and have diets largely comprised of saturated fat are relatively leaner, much healthier, and arguably happier than us here in the states.

European women also tend to be more liberal when it comes to the ways in which they eat and drink during pregnancy but remarkably the rates of premature birth, infant mortality, and birth defects in Europe are substantially lower than those in the United States.

My viewpoint has been further cultivated by my status as an “oops baby”. I was born to a mother who regularly consumed wine, whiskey, and malt liquor while pregnant, primarily due to the fact that she was totally unaware of my presence in her womb until the end of her second trimester. Still, I have an extremely high IQ and was the first of her children to attend college and ultimately receive a PhD.

As a scientist this is especially fascinating to me now given the fact that longitudinal studies conducted in the United Kingdom continue to show that children born to light drinkers possess higher cognitive scores and, interestingly, lower rates of hyperactivity compared with those born to abstainers.

Certainly I didn’t share that tidbit of information to encourage alcohol consumption among pregnant women. I’m simply driving home the point that a mere glass of wine a few days a week is unlikely to pose a major health threat to your unborn baby. In fact, after years and years of research, I haven’t been able to spot a single convincing study pertaining to the risks of such low alcohol consumption.

Nevertheless, the general take of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is simple and firm: “There is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant. There is also no safe time during pregnancy to drink and no safe kind of alcohol”. The World Health Organization and numerous international governing bodies share similar sentiments.

The conservative stance is in many ways warranted and completely justified as alcohol does, in fact, cross a woman’s placenta freely making it easier to enter the embryo or fetus through the umbilical cord. Further, excessive prenatal alcohol consumption has been linked to various physical and mental birth defects.

However, we’re talking about a whole lot of alcohol here–Somewhere in the ballpark of 4 or more drinks in a single sitting. This is way more than the occasional 4 to 5-ounce serving of wine reported by a large majority of women who drink alcohol while pregnant.

In the absence of compelling data pertaining to the inherent risks or potential side effects of light alcohol intake during pregnancy, the choice of whether or not to partake in a glass of wine from time to time is, in my opinion, a personal decision.

This very same notion of choice can and should be applied to moderate coffee drinking in pregnancy.

Indeed, similar to alcohol there are countless myths and misconceptions surrounding the risks of prenatal coffee consumption, many of which are driven by misrepresentations of a handful of studies highlighting correlations between high caffeine intake and miscarriage amongst expecting mothers.

Sure, coffee is rich in caffeine but it also houses large amounts of antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients known to promote overall good health. Interestingly, women who drink coffee to the tune of 12-16 ounces a day have been shown to exhibit substantially lower levels of depression and depressive symptoms, which are actually quite common in pregnancy.

Nevertheless, if you’re truly concerned about the potential risks of taking in too much caffeine during pregnancy, consider limiting your daily intake to 12 ounces or less. This is what’s actually recommended by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and, once more, it’s your decision!

Personally, I’m of the school of thought where taking care of yourself and prioritizing your needs and happiness is of the utmost importance when it comes to the health of your unborn baby. For some women, this may be as simple as enjoying a cup (or two) of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine at night. For others, an occasional meal of sushi or raw fish might fit the bill.

But once again, despite the fact that sushi and raw fish are regularly included as part of a healthy pregnancy diet among the Japanese population, such cuisine remains “mythicized” here in America and, therefore, at the top of the “Foods to Avoid When You’re Pregnant” list.

Now, as I’ve already mentioned, there’s always an element of truth behind every myth. In the case of sushi and raw fish, mercury levels are the real issue. Excessive mercury exposure is generally toxic to anyone but especially dangerous among pregnant women. However, unbeknownst to many, whether raw or cooked, all seafood is contaminated with some level of mercury.

It’s not at all necessary for women to avoid sushi or raw fish during pregnancy. It is however necessary for pregnant women (and people in general) to avoid seafood sources housing toxic levels of mercury among which include shark, marlin, tilefish, swordfish, and king mackerel. That’s it!

Like all forms of seafood, moderate amounts of sushi and raw fish can be quite beneficial for pregnant women, as they are excellent sources of high-quality protein, vitamin B12, and potent antioxidants like selenium. Some varieties like salmon also house large quantities of vitamin D and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid that greatly supports healthy brain and eye development in infants.

Once again, moderation is key here. As holds true for virtually any and all foods, adverse health complications and effects can arise when too much is consumed too often.

So hopefully I’ve provided some valuable insights about the importance of considering this idea of “moderation” and personal choice, particularly when it comes to addressing the many misconceptions and misperceptions behind pregnancy-related food restrictions and presumed risks. In the end, every woman is different and every pregnancy is even more distinct.

Better to arm yourself with the real facts and use them to preferentially guide your desired eating behaviors as opposed to hanging on the beliefs, thoughts, and perspectives of others.

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